If you shop in mainstream grocery stores, you have probably only eaten one variety of garlic — or maybe two, California Early and California Late. Both are soft-neck cultivars with a middle-of-the-road flavor.
But there are hundreds of garlic varieties, and more and more small farmers are growing the pungent hard-neck cultivars, as well as other soft-neck cultivars from around the world. And what better way to experience a world of garlic flavors than to do a side-by-side garlic taste test.
I recently was host of such a garlic tasting with friends, neighbors and farm hands. We prepared eight garlic varieties, and with the seriousness of a wine-tasting, recorded the aroma and taste of each variety, raw and roasted.
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As it turned out, tasting that much garlic over an hour or so led to euphoric and mildly mind-altering effects similar to those you might experience tasting wine. We also learned that the taste of a raw clove can depend on whether you get an outer surface slice or an inner core slice (the latter is much hotter). And we learned that taste is also dependent on how soon after harvest you are eating the garlic, since it is juicier and milder when it’s first harvested, and as it dries down, the flavors get concentrated. Growing conditions also affect taste, and in some weather and soil conditions, traditionally hot garlic can be mild, and mild garlic can turn hot.
All of which is to say, after reading our tasting notes below, go out on your own or with some friends to explore the wide world of garlic. You might even want to work your way through the 293 varieties of garlic gathered from around the world and kept at the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s collection in Pullman, Wash.
FRENCH RED (Hardneck, Rocambole Type)
Aroma: Light and tangy, spicy
Taste (raw): Immediate bite on tongue like a hot radish; crunchy jicama texture; refined flavor after the initial hot burst; nicely balanced
Taste (roasted): Very mild; almost no garlic flavor; very faded; reminiscent of mashed potato with mild garlic butter
GERMAN EXTRA HARDY (Hardneck, Porcelain Type)
Aroma: Almost no aroma
Taste (raw): Very hot; sticks with you; long burn; mineral, iron, blood overtones; unashamed and ready for action
Taste (roasted): Caramelized; like a sweet garlic pudding
GERMAN RED (HARDNECK, Rocambole Type)
Aroma: Strong, classic garlic
Taste (raw): Mellow beginning, spice creeps up later; very delayed reaction with strong kick at the end; warming, buttery flavors before the kick
Taste (roasted): One of the very best when roasted; crème brulee with a hint of earthy musk
INCHELIUM RED (Softneck, Artichoke type, found on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington)
Aroma: Mild garlic aroma
Taste (raw): Very mild taste but with a major kick at the end; fairly one-dimensional, somewhat sterile, watered-down garlic flavor
Taste (roasted): Sweet but not interesting; reminiscent of Wheaties or puffed rice that sat in milk too long
KOREAN RED HOT (Hardneck, Rocambole type)
Aroma: A lot going on, deep, complex, varied, and very hard-to-define aromas
Taste (raw): Sassy! Complexity of a good Sriracha; complex with end kick of heat and a hint of chives
Taste (roasted): Complex and balanced; dressed or undressed, hands down the best; even vampires can’t resist it
MUSIC (Hardneck, Porcelain type, Italian variety brought to Canada by Al Music in the 1980s)
Aroma: Mild, crisp aromas
Taste (raw): Very crisp crunch; earthy, smoky, round flavors; a little bit of a radish bite and slight end kick; very delayed response, medium horse radish heat; wasabi factor up your nose, volatile elements take over nasal passages, pervasive, invasive, good for sinus issues
Taste (roasted): Sweet and pungent
NEW YORK WHITE (Softneck variety)
Aroma: Nice perfume.
Taste (raw): Very intense bite/burn, really sharp, very hot at first, then long slow mellowing; spicy and lingering
Taste (roasted): Garlic’s garlic, hint of licorice, nice balance, retains its kick even when roasted
RUSSIAN RED (Hardneck, Rocambole type)
Aroma: Spicy and earthy
Taste (raw): Very strong flavor and the most heat of all, burns entire inside of mouth, almost painful, ooh mama, I’m completely buzzed
Taste (roasted): Floral and nicely balanced.
And the overall winner at our garlic tasting was . . . Korean Red Hot. But don’t take our word for it. Seek out a half-dozen varieties from local farmers and do your own taste test.
Main photo: Garlic-tasting leads to a euphoria that is similar to a wine tasting. Credit: Terra Brockman